Obituary: Callum Macdonald

IN 20-odd years after the Second World War, Scottish literary culture went through a curious agony. The last firms representing the great era when Edinburgh had vied with London as a publishing centre still had headquarters in the city, where a stupendous International Festival of the arts was launched in 1947. But Scottish writers of poetry and serious fiction were paupers at the feast. "Lallans verse" was the butt of facetious London literati. The great MacDiarmid was alive and fulminating, but his poetry was only scantly in print. In a review article in New Saltire, a typically short-lived periodical, printed in 1961, Edwin Morgan asked, "When are the leading Scottish publishers going to do something about modern Scottish poetry?"

He went on to notice three pamphlets self-published from Edinburgh addresses - and two items produced by M. Macdonald, printer and publisher, in that city. He praised "Malcolm" Macdonald for his struggle "to keep Scottish poetry in print".

A potent mythological Gestalt shows us MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig and Sydney Goodsir Smith smoking away together over many whiskies in Milne's Bar at the intersection of Rose Street and Hanover Street in the centre of Edinburgh and somehow creating the waves which buoyed up a Literary Renaissance. It is true that Robert Garioch was usually present, and that Tom Scott, George Mackay Brown and Alan Bold did join them on occasion, though in fact MacDiarmid was rarely in town and the others were as likely to be in the Abbotsford. It is also true that Callum Macdonald would often quietly be of the company.

It was he who persuaded MacCaig to cease to be "McCaig". He published Iain Crichton Smith's first slim volume of poems, then, decades later, the collected poems of Garioch, and of his fellow Gael Derick Thomson. When he set up Lines Review in 1952, MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, MacCaig and Goodsir Smith were on his editorial board.

But the first editor of Lines was Alan Riddell, an Australian Scot recently associated with Alexander Trocchi in founding the avant-garde, internationalist magazine Merlin in Paris. That orbited with Beckett and Neruda. Macdonald's outlook was never parochial. He was a man of wide vision, not a Milne's Bar groupie. A reserved, dignified Gael, he stood, fag and glass in hand, on the verge of many a literary gathering, where, with his immaculate suit and tie, he might have passed for a modest Highland draper accidentally present, but was actually a subject of awe among those who knew how devoutly he had obeyed his ruling passion for poetry, so that, while he was a shy man himself, others felt shy in his presence.

Behind his courteous mien was a spirit which stood for no half measures. He worked ferociously hard himself and demanded equal commitment from others. Incorrigibly generous, he could not thole the sight of anyone's empty glass. He despised filter-tip cigarettes and stuck with high-tar Virginia. Trevor Royle, a distinguished editor of Lines in the Eighties, recalls how packages from Macdonald Printers always announced their arrival with a strong whiff of tobacco.

Macdonald was born in 1912 on the island of Bernera, off the west coast of Lewis, and grew up in a Gaelic-speaking community. Because it produced so many ministers, his branch of Clan Donald was nicknamed "Knox". Throughout his life, "Callum Knox" reread the Bible in Gaelic. Via the illustrious Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, he progressed to Edinburgh University, where he was an enthusiastic and talented student of history. He married Williamina ("Winnie") Ross, from Harris, in 1934, a union which produced six children.

Before the war, they lived in London, where Callum marketed lobsters for Highland fishermen. His war service in the RAF, in which he rose to be Squadron Leader, took him to Iceland and Gibraltar. Afterwards, owning a stationer's shop in Edinburgh, he taught himself how to operate a Heidelberg Automatic Platen printing press by trial and error. He became a sizeable printer with scores of notable clients, ranging from the rather likely National Library of Scotland to the almost implausible Scottish Widows and Standard Life.

Macdonald Printers - the last of his many "retirements" from the business was as late as 1997 - subsidised his publishing ventures. Profit was certainly not the point of these. Though page layout was exemplary, cover design was austerely basic. But the books earned him honour - a special Scottish Arts Council Award in 1972, an exhibition at the National Library of Scotland in 1987, an MBE "for services to Scottish literary publishing" in 1992. And his vision, it may be said, was fulfilled.

In 1984, Tessa Ransford set up the Scottish Poetry Library. Winnie died in 1986 and three years later Tessa became Callum's second wife. She was also the 10th and last editor of Lines Review. When they finally laid the magazine to rest in 1998, it had published most significant Scottish poets of its day, many useful writers in English from other countries (a late issue, for instance, was devoted to verse from India) and much poetry in translation. The Poetry Library is about to move to custom-built new premises bang next door to the site of the brand-new Scottish Parliament. It is a shame that Callum died before he could see either, but good that he knew that their arrival was certain.

Lines ended with issue 144. In the Seventies, new outlets for verse were born with similar durability. Chapman is approaching its 100th issue, Cencrastus is well past its 50th. Regional magazines of good standard have proliferated. After the great 19th-century tradition of Scottish publishing stuttered to a complete halt in the Sixties, new imprints of distinction gradually emerged - Canongate, Polygon. There are now five publishers operating in Edinburgh with good lists of new books of poetry. It is most unlikely that any fresh poet of great talent will fail to achieve the decisive first slim volume. The dearth of the Fifties and Sixties must seem almost inconceivable to people who weren't alive at the time.

The day Callum Macdonald died, Christopher Harvie was launching his latest collection of essays about Scotland in Thin's Bookshop, by Edinburgh University. After his speech was finished, an assistant stepped forward with a telephone message from Tessa, apologising for her absence and explaining why. Harvie called for a minute's silence. Then more wine was poured and conversation flowed, as Callum would surely have wished.

Perhaps some of that throng, politicoes and historians, were not aware of his contribution. But the small burn which sprang from Callum Macdonald's friendship with MacDiarmid and Goodsir Smith has swollen and has joined and fed the substantial river which has carried us to the Holyrood Parliament and towards a millennium which in Scotland, so to speak, will be rather peculiarly "new".

Angus Calder

Malcolm (Callum) Macdonald, printer and publisher: born Breaclete, Isle of Bernera 4 May 1912; MBE 1992; married 1934 Winnie Ross (died 1986; three sons, two daughters, and one daughter deceased), 1989 Tessa Ransford; died Peebles 24 February 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game